Yuba church or cult?

Leader under fire

San Fransisco Examiner/October 12, 1997
By Katherine Seligman

"Fate has brought us to this enchanted place called Renaissance."
From the "Renaissance Journal" Jan. 1, 1984

OREGON HOUSE, Yuba County-The jumble of thistle end oak trees lining the road through this remote town disappears abruptly at the gate of the mysterious property known as Apollo.

There, in the midst of one of the state's poorest rural counties, a row of perfectly cone-shaped cypress trees leads the way to an imitation French castle surrounded by elaborate rose gardens, manicured sports fields and a renowned winery whose vines are etched into 365 acres of terraced trills.

Few outsiders see these wonders. The owner, a self-described "school of spiritual development" called Fellowship of Friends, has operated in relative isolation for 25 years, amassing more than $20 million in property and growing to 2,000 members worldwide.

More than 400 now live near or work at Apollo's 1,300 sculpted acres, the group's world headquarters that has alternately been called The Farm, Via Del Sol, Mount Carmel and Renaissance.

Fellowship founder under scrutiny

They have their own school, restaurant and cemetery, insulating them from the rest of Yuba County, where 11.4 percent of the residents are unemployed and about 17 percent - twice the statewide average-are on welfare.

They are little known to locals in the nearby county seat of Marysville, where the news this year was dominated by floods, the local militia movement, a high school book-banning controversy and, recently, a wildfire that stopped short of Apollo but ravaged 6,000 nearby acres and scores of homes.

Members are, by their own description, "unconventional," embarked on a quest for self-improvement and higher consciousness they believe can be attained partly through immersion in the world's finest art and culture. They even reluctantly accept the label "cult," noting it historically might have applied to Mormons or the first disciples of Jesus.

The fellowship's retreat, which has legal status as a church, might have continued to flourish in solitude if it weren't for the public controversy surrounding founder and leader Robert Earl Burton, a former Bay Area school teacher whom members call "The Teacher." Last year an ex-member sued Burton and the Fellowship for $5 million in damages, claiming Burton had brainwashed and sexually exploited him from age 17.

The lawsuit claimed the Fellowship was being used to further Burton's prime objective, his "voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle." Burton is portrayed as a leader who considers himself "singularly blessed as being 'a conscious being,' an 'angel,' and a 'god'" who prophesies that only his followers will survive an upcoming Armageddon.

The lawsuit ended in November but neither side is allowed to discuss the settlement.

Fellowship officials have dismissed the charges as lies, but some former members tell stories with details that mirror those in the lawsuit.

The allegations unsettled some in the surrounding community, who had watched the parade of well-dressed, well-educated people driving past their small houses, mobile homes and farms on the way to Apollo.

"There is still a fair amount of tension between the Fellowshippers and the non-Fellowshippers," said county Supervisor Hal Stocker, who is also concerned that the Fellowship owes the county more than $1 million in property taxes -a debt it has agreed to settle.

"Robert Burton is a big guru so why doesn't he come out and speak to the people?" Stocker said. "I've never seen him and I don't know anyone (outside) who has."

Fellowship officials say they are only following their own beliefs, a mix of philosophy based primarily on the teachings of two esoteric turn-of-the-century Russian mystics [sic], George Gurdjieff, whose work has been popularized and applied to business, and Peter Ouspensky, whose book "The Fourth Way" has had a steady devotional following.

Burton's teachings stress "the education and discipline of the emotions," the importance of living in the present, a love of beauty and an understanding of its capacity to create higher awareness, according to a 1995 edition of his book "Self Remembering."

It is not surprising that the Fellowship attracted and trained artists, musicians and craftspeople. It has its own orchestra, chorus, opera company, theater troupe and private museum, which was filled with a world class collection of 17th century Chinese furniture until it was sold last year at Christie's for $11.1 million.

The "Goethe Academy," as the museum is sometimes called, now houses Oriental rugs, a turn of the century Steinway piano, the 17th century painter Guercino's "Toilet of Venus," a display of Sevres china, marble fireplaces, chandeliers and, sometimes, Burton.

Wines from the Renaissance Vineyard and Winery win medals. A February write-up in the New York Times called the vineyard "spectacular."

Fellowship officials point to these accomplishments and their community donations-including help for those left homeless by September's fire-when answering questions about their detractors.

While they don't deny Burton may have had sex with male followers, they insist the encounters were consensual acts between adults and irrelevant to the group's mission of pursuing greater self-awareness. Individual responsibility is key in their beliefs, they say.

"The Fellowship does not engage in brainwashing," said Girard Haven, of the board of directors. 'We may have a charismatic leader and strong feelings about higher forces and our own spirituality, but we know what we are doing. We are not doing it blindly."

Furthermore, said Haven, members are free to leave, as some 8,000 have done in the past two decades.

Burton, 57, was unavailable for an interview. He hasn't spoken to the press since 1981, but he wanted to "pass on" information about some of his critics whom he believes "had a history of mental problems," according to Fellowship President Peter Bishop.

Court records related to two lawsuits and interviews with former members describe a cult whose leader believes his country paradise will function as an "ark" after a catastrophic earthquake destroys the outside world next year. Outsiders, whom Burton has referred to as "life people," will perish.

Burton professes to be an angel in a man's body" who communicates with 44 angels, from Benjamin Franklin to Jesus Christ, court records and former members say.

Ex-members say Burton has lived opulently, collecting Baccarat crystal and Ming Dynasty art, wearing Gucci shoes and expensive suits and traveling around the world while imposing strict rules on followers-on sex, diet, behavior, even grooming.

In the past, according to former members and the group's publications, Burton has decreed no sex before marriage, no mixed-breed pets, no smoking, no permanents or hair coloring, no bike riding.

This summer members were not to use the words "hi," "you know" and "yeah" and were to keep both feet flat on the floor while dining.

Cynthia Hill, a member since 1979 who acts as the group's spokeswoman, said these exercises help focus attention and there is no enforcement of them.

Burton, who founded the Fellowship around 1970 after leaving another Gurdjieff-Ouspensky group, held early informal meetings inactivate homes or chain restaurants.

After incorporating in 1971, the Fellowship bought, cleared and developed land in Yuba County using volunteer labor of its followers.

By 1984, stories about Burton began circulating outside the Fellowship after a director, Samuel Sanders, wrote an open letter to the board of directors saying Burton had used to his position to seduce young men.

The Fellowship kicked him out for "fomenting schism," according to a lawsuit for damages filed by Sanders, who said he was bounced after devoting thousands of hours without pay and making more than $100,000 in donations to the group.

The Fellowship denied the charges and the lawsuit was settled out of court.

Ames Gilbert, who left the Fellowship two and a half years ago after more than 16 years, believes that he was "dropped like a brick" from Burton's "inner circle" when he turned down what he now thinks was Burton's "proposition."

[John Doe], an artist living in Lake Tahoe who joined the Fellowship in the early '70s, also has a story of being pursued by Burton. But, like the young man who filed the lawsuit, [Doe] said he felt he could not turn Burton down.

"He sodomized me," said [Doe]. "I was in a state of trauma. He said I had to be close to him, that I had to submit my will to my teacher. I just remember walking around in a daze, smiling and feeling like I wasn' t alive anymore. I was in a state of shock, like a robot."

[Doe] said he was in the group for 18 years, working as a secretary and chauffeur for Burton, then running a teaching center in Venice before moving to India in the late '80s and breaking away.

What [Doe] considers Burton's "misuse of power" left him so shaken that he could not tell his wife of the sexual encounters until after the couple divorced shortly before he went to India. Now, he said, he wants the truth about Burton's "mind control" and "thought reform" techniques to be known.

"The Fellowship is a dictatorship, a predatory dictatorship," he said. "I should know. I was a leader."

Hill said she wonders why [Doe] continues his "vendetta" against the Fellowship, why he can't take responsibility for his actions and "get on with his life."

"We do feel that without media attention (such former members) would have resumed more balanced lives long ago," she said.

Troy Buzbee was 7 when his father joined the Fellowship, according to the lawsuit he filed against the group in 1996. Buzbee regarded Burton as a "god" and joined in 1986 when he was 17.

Later that same year, Burton invited Buzbee to a "teaching dinner" and plied him with alcohol, according to the lawsuit. He then told Buzbee to come to his room and lock the door.

"I promise you I am an angel in a man's body," Burton told him, then instructed him to "separate" from his body and just "let go," the lawsuit said.

The demands for "sexual service" continued sporadically through April 1994, the lawsuit contended, with Buzbee feeling "degraded." During that time Buzbee invested thousands of hours working for the Fellowship without minimum wage pay, he charged in the lawsuit.

Buzbee was not the only member being sexually exploited by Burton, the lawsuit said. "Burton spoke openly about his sexuality in the form of jokes at the all-male dinners that he would often lavishly host at all-male, all-you-can-drink 'symposiums,' " said the lawsuit. "He would boast that 'one hundred boys would not be enough (for his sexual appetite)."'

A wave of members left after Buzbee's lawsuit and many say the departure was painful. Ex-members said they felt devastated, that friends of 20 years shunned them.

"People who leave are the lowest people in the universe," said one former top leader of the group. "These people are fallen angels. They're told their souls will be eaten up by the moon."

The Fellowship finds new members by listing center numbers on the Internet and placing informational bookmarks in key books at certain stores.

Bishop said he joined after seeing an ad for a "Gurdjieff-Ouspensky center" in the Santa Cruz area in 1972. He'd been interested in Zen Buddhism, bioengergetics and aikido, he said, but had never joined any groups.

It was several weeks before he met Burton, who at the time was in a self-imposed period of silence, Bishop said.

"I didn't join the school because of him," said Bishop. "I was in the Fellowship because of what seemed to be the power of the ideas."

Bishop is one of about 15 ministers who perform marriages, christenings and funerals for members.

He worries little about Burton's doomsday predictions. "If something happens, that will be interesting," Bishop said. "If it doesn't happen, that will be interesting. It's very far from why we're here."

Bishop said the Fellowship's finances are precarious, despite $4 million in donations the past year and income from the Christie's sale, because the group supports centers in Russia and Mexico where members have little money.

Members-most of whom hold outside jobs - tithe 10 percent of their earnings and in the past have been required to make hefty additional donations after a year, then two years in the group. Burton reportedly was paid an annual salary of $250,000 several years ago.

County Tax Collector Jim Kennedy said he has received two $6,000 installments toward about $1.2 million in unpaid taxes from the past four years, what he thinks is a "good faith" effort to pay.

Supervisor Stocker said he's grown more wary of the group following the publicity around the Heaven's Gate suicides in Southern California.

"One of my worries is that it might be a cult," he said. "They seem to have a guru and the guru is making predictions that the world is going to end."

Yet others praise the Fellowship's generous contributions, including donations to the local community center, the fire station arts organizations and Lions Club

"They've contributed quality and excellence to all the arts in the community," said Lee Burrows, head of the Yuba and Sutter counties regional art council.

To Laura Cassaro, who works at the Oregon House Grocery and Deli, members are "excellent neighbors. They keep their land and homes gorgeous. These people have class. They have finesse."

The teachings, the spiritual camaraderie and physical beauty at the Fellowship once did hold meaning, ax-members say.

"(The philosophy) had a lot of depth in it," said former member Gilbert. "Then the behavior of Burton became more and more unacceptable. One tried to idealize it but it was no longer compatible with my conscience."

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